Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the New Jersey Greats.
From rolling farms to quaint seaside towns to dense suburbs, New Jersey is as varied geographically as it is demographically. Often overshadowed by the cities that bookend it — New York City and Philadelphia — the state’s dining scene flies under the radar, but those who pay attention are richly rewarded.
As you’d expect from the “Garden State,” chefs here have a lot to work with, sourcing pristine vegetables from nearby farms and fresh fish from the state’s 130 miles of coastline. It all makes for a rich restaurant scene that rivals those neighboring giants, whether it’s via NJ stereotypes — yes, classic red sauce Italian is alive and well — or through the more unexpected — Aghan food in a casino town, anyone? To the uninitiated, NJ dining is as surprising as the fact that not everything is about gym, tan, and laundry, and for residents — well, they’re just eating well.
These are the restaurants that define what it means to dine in New Jersey right now.
The Saddle River Inn (Saddle River)
Since its opening in 1981, The Saddle River Inn has always been a fine dining destination. Housed in a restored 18th century barn, chef and owner Jamie Knott ensures that the menu nods to the classic, pastoral setting while still feeling fresh. American fare regularly sees international influences, such as the maple-chipotle glaze on the precisely roasted chicken, or the addition of mint chimichurri to a plate of Colorado lamb chops. The restaurant is BYOB, so pick out a special bottle to bring with you to round out the meal.
Dining at the restaurant: The Saddle River Inn is open for limited indoor dining, as well as outdoor, riverside seating in the restaurant’s covered, heated tent. There is also a fire pit outside the restaurant to warm up while waiting to be seated in either location.
Takeout: The restaurant does not offer takeout at this time.
Hunan Taste (Danville/Montclair)
Those in the know looking for quality Hunan, Sichuan, and Mandarin fare head to Hunan Taste, the restaurant dubbed the best Chinese by New Jersey Monthly readers for several years in a row. The original Danville location opened in 1986, taking over a suburban roller skating rink and visually transforming the building to resemble an ancient Chinese pagoda. But as striking as the architecture is, everyone is here for the food: melt-in-your-mouth soup dumplings, mapo tofu, and spicy twice-cooked Sichuan pork are just a few of the items on the restaurant’s large menu that combines harder-to-find regional dishes and Chinese-American favorites.
Dining at the restaurant: Both the Denville and the Montclair locations are open for limited indoor dining. The restaurant does not take reservations.
Takeout: Takeout is available from the Denville location via third-party apps.
La Isla (Hoboken)
For over 20 years, La Isla’s original Washington Street location brought a taste of Havana to downtown Hoboken, and the restaurant became so popular that chef and owner Omar Giner added a newer, sleeker uptown location. The expansion came with a larger menu, but Giner ensured that the Cuban classics he ate growing up remained, such as croqueta de jamon (ham croquettes), empanadas, and of course, a Cubano sandwich. Always ask for the daily specials, which range from bacalao, a codfish and potato stew, to ropa vieja: shredded, stewed beef that’s one of Cuba’s national dishes.
Dining at the restaurant: La Isla is accepting reservations for limited indoor dining at the uptown location, and walk-in indoor dining at the downtown location.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available from both locations and can be ordered via the restaurant’s website.
Vegetarians and meat-eaters alike leave Mesob satisfied; the restaurant’s large menu of Ethiopian dishes has something for everyone. For first timers, your best bet is to order the Taste of Mesob, which comes with the diner’s choice of two starters, two beef dishes, one lamb dish, two seafood dishes, and four vegetable sides. Try the kitfo, a beef tartare flavored with clarified butter and a mix of spices. The restaurant is BYOB, and also offers a large selection of teas, such as kemem shai, a black East African tea spiced with dried ginger, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon.
Dining at the restaurant: Mesob is currently open for limited indoor dining, by reservation only.
Located in a former bank, Felina’s space is as rich in detail as the Italian dishes on the restaurant’s menu. The owners decided to use the bank’s soaring lobby as an event space, locating the restaurant where the offices used to be, in a cozy back area they warmed with clusters of globe lights and reclaimed wood. The menu changes with the seasons, with a few anchors like the rotating “pizzette,” a mini pizza that was recently topped with Brussels sprouts, provolone, crème fraîche, and Meyer lemon. Pair it with one of the restaurant’s five negroni variations, such as the cold brew negroni, where a splash of coffee liqueur is added to the typical triad of Italian liqueur, vermouth, and gin.
Dining at the restaurant: Felina is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: The restaurant offers takeout Thursday through Sunday; orders can be placed via Felina’s website.
Forno’s of Spain (Newark)
Starting in the 1960s, Spanish and Portuguese immigrants began flocking to Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood for jobs at the neighborhood’s various factories. Several decades later, the neighborhood offers a portal where diners can access the cuisines of these countries without ever setting foot in Newark Airport. The neighborhood is full of bakeries, cafes, butchers, and barbecue spots making treats from the Iberian Peninsula, but for finer dining, locals head to Fornos of Spain. This longtime spot excels at seafood dishes, such as the wide variety of paellas and Spanish classics such as simply grilled octopus doused with olive oil and paprika, all served in an old-school dining room against a backdrop of white table cloths.
Dining at the restaurant: Forno’s of Spain offers limited indoor dining. Expect family celebrations, from birthdays to anniversaries, at many of the tables.
Takeout: Takeout is available by calling the restaurant directly.
Mehndi in Morristown is part of a restaurant dynasty owned by the Mehtani family, who are widely credited with raising the profile of Indian food in the state and making Edison a dining destination with the opening of their first restaurant there in 1990. They’ve since expanded to run six restaurants, including this critically acclaimed Morristown restaurant. At Mehndi, diners can choose from well-done standards such as an assortment of clay-oven baked dishes and a variety of biryanis, but look closely for the harder-to-find dishes that make the restaurant special, such as khattal masala, a jackfruit and ginger curry or beetroot tikki, an appetizer of fritters made from beets, potato, and homemade cheese.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining for both lunch and dinner.
Takeout: Takeout is available by calling the restaurant, and delivery is available via third-party apps.
Chatham fine dining destination Serenade has been topping best-of lists in New Jersey throughout the restaurant’s 20-plus years of existence. Run by husband-and-wife team Nancy and James Laird, the restaurant’s marriage of traditional dishes and modern techniques are the key to its longevity, serving updated American fare in a handsome grey dining room appointed with bright yellow chairs. Here, diners can find timeless dishes such as clams casino alongside creative preparations such as braised short ribs with an Asian-inspired glaze, roasted apples, and sticky rice.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining and outdoor seating in the restaurant’s parking lot, where heaters are provided and the space is tented when weather permits.
Takeout: Serenade offers takeout and delivery, available for order via the restaurant’s website. Beyond a la carte dishes, the restaurant also creates a “steak night” package with four courses of steakhouse classics such as shrimp cocktail, prime bone-in sirloin, truffle twice-baked potato, and chocolate mousse.
Jockey Hollow (Morristown)
Located in the Vail Mansion, once home to an early president of AT&T, the Jockey Hollow compound actually encompasses several restaurant concepts in one. The Oyster Bar is a casual brasserie; The Washington Room, a more upscale dining with a tasting menu option; The Vail Bar, a cocktail bar; and The Rathskeller, which does double duty as a beer hall and event space. No matter whether you’re stopping by for a tray of oysters, the excellent burger, or a five- course tasting menu, the long reflecting pool, stunning marble building, and meticulously groomed grounds will transport you in a way few restaurants can.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently in hibernation for the winter.
Takeout: Jockey Hollow is not doing takeout at the moment.
Razza (Jersey City)
Razza was put on the map when The New York Times declared that New York’s best pizza was actually in New Jersey. And while this fed into a regional food debate that, like all food debates, will never conclude to anyone’s satisfaction, critics and the customers that line up to wait at the restaurant can all agree that owner Dan Richer makes very, very, very good pizza. His secret lies in the naturally leavened, flavorful dough, and a roster of toppings that takes full advantage of New Jersey’s farms. Case in point: the Jersey margherita, which uses New Jersey’s famed tomatoes and mozzarella made from water buffalo raised in Sussex County.
Dining at the restaurant: Razza is currently closed for indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available to order through the restaurant’s website.
Lambertville Station (Lambertville)
Housed in the old 19th century train station that inspires its name, Lambertville Station is both an inn and American restaurant complex that offers a few dining experiences in one: the more upscale Lambertville Station Restaurant, The Wine Cellar for wine and snacks, The Pub for cocktails, and the Canal Side Bar for al fresco drinks and casual fare. This range of options makes it the perfect place to cap off a day of exploring Lambertville’s lively downtown, no matter whether you’re looking for filet mignon or fish and chips.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining and outdoor seating on the heat lamp-equipped patio.
Takeout: Lambertville Station offers both takeout and delivery, with online ordering available via the restaurant’s website.
The Frog & The Peach (New Brunswick)
The Frog & The Peach has been operating continuously since 1983, a legacy that the restaurant’s most recent owner, chef Bruce Lefebvre, takes very seriously: His first job out of culinary school was with the restaurant, and in 2012, he had the chance to buy it. He’s since doubled down on ingredient-driven American cuisine, with a penchant for wild game evident in dishes such as elk carpaccio, served with a preserved egg yolk and a dressing of cassis, juniper, and maple topped with pickled shallots. The restaurant also puts on special dinners and experiences, such as a recent five-course Portuguese tasting menu and wine pairing meal, designed by the restaurant’s Portuguese sous chef.
Dining at the restaurant: The Frog and The Peach is open for limited indoor dining and, when weather permits, dining in the restaurant’s heated, partially open garden room.Takeout: Takeout is available to order online via The Frog and The Peach’s website, or by calling the restaurant directly.
Delta’s (New Brunswick)
For a taste of the South in Central New Jersey, head to Delta’s in New Brunswick. During the weekdays, locals congregate in the dining room for comfort food classics such as smothered pork chops and baked macaroni and cheese. But the weekends are the time to visit, when the restaurant’s popular brunch is accompanied by live music featuring a rotating cast of DJs and jazz bands. Skip the standard mimosa and wash down your fried fish and grits with one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, such as the Bubblin’ Brown Shuga, where Hennessy Black is topped off with Champagne and a brown sugar cube.
Dining at the restaurant: Delta’s is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available via the restaurant’s website.
Taking inspiration from all of the world, Mistral’s menu is hard to categorize — and it’s that variety that keeps diners coming back to the restaurant’s bright, wood-filled dining room. In fact, the restaurant has appeared on New Jersey Monthly’s annual best restaurant list every year since it opened in 2013. Mistral’s small plates give tables the opportunity to try a large selection of dishes before digging into the mains, and since the menu changes all the time, there’s always an excuse for return visits. Recently, appetizers included dishes such as smoked cod beignets with a side of horseradish crème fraîche, and mains such as crispy whole black bass smothered in mapo mushroom sauce.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining and also has outdoor tables available on the heated, year-round patio.
Takeout: Mistral’s full menu is available for takeout via the restaurant’s website.
Semolina (Red Bank)
Don’t let the casual vibe of this BYO-spot in downtown Red Bank fool you — brothers Chuck and Tylar Lesbirel are churning out very serious food. Leaning heavily on New Jersey’s farms and fisheries, the menu at Semolina has a distinct sense of place. And while vegetable dishes and proteins all come with creative flourishes, the stars of the menu are the perfectly al dente handmade pastas, appearing in dishes such as the chitarra “carbonara,” a riff on the classic Italian preparation that adds a touch of heavy cream in the sauce, and comes topped with crumbled applewood bacon, a duck yolk, and a shower of cracked pepper.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently open for limited indoor dining, as well as sidewalk dining when weather permits.
Takeout: Curbside pickup is available by calling the restaurant directly.
Jersey Shore/South Jersey
Grand Tavern (Neptune)
Grand Tavern’s slogan says it all: “Beef, fat, butter and cream. Isn’t life grand?” In other words, come hungry. It’s the quintessential neighborhood American restaurant — the menu is succinct, but it changes frequently and offers enough variety to please most. Always ask about the daily specials, which have recently included fried artichokes served in a pool of briny bottarga cream, or a grilled pork chop on top of a stew of escarole and beans that’s packed with garlic and preserved lemon. A favorite hangout among local bartenders and sommeliers, the restaurant also runs a top-notch drink program, cranking out original cocktails such as the Flip Your Lid with bourbon, grapefruit, lemon, cinnamon, and bitters.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: Grand Tavern does not offer takeout at this time.
La Cita (Cherry Hill)
Owners Olivia and Regulo Reyes set La Cita apart from other area Mexican spots through the restaurant’s diverse menu of regional specialties. Diners can sample cochinita pibil, a spicy pork dish from the Yucatan, or Veracruz-style red snapper cooked with onions, tomatoes, capers, olives, and chiles. Kick off your meal with an order of queso fundido, a satisfying cheese dip packed with poblano peppers and chorizo that begs to be scooped up by warm flour tortillas and paired with your favorite beverage — this is another BYOB spot.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: La Cita’s menu is available for takeout or delivery via the restaurant’s website.
Setaara (Atlantic City)
The brainchild of Abdullah Panah and his aunt, Homa Bazyar (who used to own a French restaurant in Denver), Setaara exemplifies the diversity of the Garden State, dubbing itself “the world’s first Afghani/French fusion restaurant.” Here, one can start with chicken liver pâté, then move on to Uzbeki palau, a dish of lamb shanks cooked with carrots and raisins and served over Afghan rice. It’s all served against an interior that longtime Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan called an “evocative space,” and a multi-story courtyard ringed by arched walkways that’s inspired by traditional Moroccan courtyards.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining and also has outdoor dining on the bi-level interior patio, complete with heaters and firepits.
Takeout: Both takeout and delivery are available via Setaara’s website.
Peter Shields Inn (Cape May)
Located in a Georgian mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Peter Shields Inn is a favorite among South Jersey residents and visitors alike for the atmosphere, attentive service, and seasonal American fare. The sprawling house has five different dining rooms where diners can enjoy oysters topped with Champagne ice and caviar, Hudson Valley foie gras, or the restaurant’s large selection of dry-aged beef. In warmer weather, be sure to snag one of the front porch tables to pair your meal with ocean breezes and a great view — and bring your favorite seaside beverage, as the restaurant is BYOB.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: During the pandemic, the Inn launched PSI @ Home, offering its full menu for takeout each evening. Orders can be placed by calling the restaurant.
Capriccio (Atlantic City)
Winner of the 2020 USA Today 10Best Readers Poll for best casino restaurant, Capriccio has long been an elegant place for Resorts casino-goers to fuel up on red-sauce favorites on a trip to Atlantic City. Choice reigns supreme here; diners can begin a meal by building their own antipasti platter, and the entrées start with a protein (chicken or veal, for instance) with a choice of preparation: parmigiana, francese, picatta, marsala, or milanese. The luxe dining room is full of frescos and chandeliers, while the patio offers sweeping views of Atlantic City.
Dining at the restaurant: Capriccio is open for limited indoor dining and also has seating on the restaurant’s covered veranda when weather permits.
Takeout: Takeout is available by calling the restaurant directly.
Deauville Inn (Strathmere)
Since its founding as a hotel for fishermen and whalers in 1881, the Deauville Inn has made it through Prohibition, several hurricanes, and now a global pandemic, where it started its next chapter with a full renovation. Located waterside on a spit of land in Strathmere Bay, the owners have kept the iconic building but updated the interior and food in a way that respects the restaurant’s lengthy nautical history, shiplapping the walls and adding modern touches to the seafood-heavy menu. Open year-round, it’s an equally great place to warm up with a bowl of she crab bisque or beer-steamed mussels with leek cream in the winter, or share a plate of ice cold local oysters and a few beers at the peak of summer.
Dining at the restaurant: The Deauville Inn is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout is available through the restaurant’s website.
Tre Famiglia (Haddonfield)
The Cipollone family is no stranger to the restaurant world — before opening Tre Famiglia in Haddonfield, they had operated a restaurant in Philadelphia’s Italian Market since 1903. Now located just over the border, Jersey and Pennsylvania residents alike flock to this family-owned BYOB spot for the super fresh calamari, handmade pasta, and slow-simmered “gravy;” many of which are cooked directly from long-standing family recipes.
Dining at the restaurant: Tre Famiglia is open for limited indoor dining.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery are both available through the restaurant’s website.